Dirty Feet, Skinned Knees, and the Spices of A Million Flowers

Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers. -Ray Bradbury

We spent some of this past week visiting my aunt and uncle. They recently retired to a small rural community in northern Arizona, across a dirt road from the cabin my grandfather built in the 1960s. During my childhood, I would spend weeks of each summer in that cabin with my grandparents and any number of cousins. While it’s been somewhat improved in recent years, “rustic” may have inadequately described the place in those early days; there is a period of time within my memory during which the call of nature was answered in an outhouse. The only bed was a fold-out couch in the cabin’s single room, upon which my grandparents slept. Kids piled into sleeping bags and lay clumped together on the floor like so many puppies or, more often, slept out on the deck under the stars. We’d tell each other jokes and ghost stories each night, growing rowdier and rowdier until my grandmother issued a frown and a stern Hush! Chastened, we’d burrow deeper into our sleeping bags and, bending our heads close together, we’d whisper the secrets of our childhood hearts late into the night.

Those were the summers of skinned knees and dirty feet. The summers of waking with the sun and throwing clothes onto our bodies and food into our mouths as we ran out the door into the forest. Those were the summers of going barefoot and eating sun-warmed berries from right off the brambles. Of bathing in the outdoor shower my grandfather built — the cabin’s only shower for most of my childhood — while looking up at the wind-rustled pines. The cabin had no television, but we never cared. There were few, if any, toys; I remember a partial set of dominos and an old and beaten train case. These we repurposed in any number of ways, and never wanted for the fancier playthings of our city lives. We made swords out of sticks, and pretended at being knights. We brewed a magic potion from leaves and creek water, and went looking for bugs with ailments we could cure. My grandfather helped us make bows and arrows, and we spent hours trying to hit a cardboard box from 20 paces. When both my grandparents were at the cabin, we confined our boundless energy and the vast majority of our chaos to the outdoors. If ever my grandmother left for a few days, however, the rules went with her. Cream cheese and jelly sandwiches became a nutritional staple. We caught dragonflies and brought them inside, the better to observe them. We moved our extensive collections — lizards, plants, rocks — indoors, and made a museum of the kitchen table.

During those summers at the cabin we were free, my cousins and I. Free as only children can be, with no jobs, no nagging concerns, and no charge other than to be home before it got too dark, if only to collect a flashlight. As childhood flowed seamlessly into adolescence, summers at the cabin began to change. I cared less about ensuring my butterfly collection was complete, and more about whether the cute boy staying in the nearby rental was close to my age. I grew too old — or at least too self-conscious — to make believe with wooden swords, and joined the adults to play cards more often than I ran barefoot through the pine litter. Eventually the last vestiges of those carefree days fell away, replaced first by summer work and college applications, and later by jobs and mortgages and car payments. Visiting the cabin became something I did rarely — an only intermittently tolerable interruption to the flow of everyday life — and then didn’t do at all, until recently.

While this past weekend wasn’t W’s first visit to my aunt and uncle’s house, it was the first since she’s been walking. Watching her respond to the cabin area has been like stepping back in time. She wakes early and hardly has the patience to eat her breakfast before she starts to demand OOS! OOS! OOS! (Shoes!) while racing for the door. She’s learning to run on the same dirt roads upon which I learned to ride a bike. My aunt feeds the birds and squirrels in the yard, and W squeals in delight to see the animals and waves to them as they come and go. She rolls in the grass and runs her fingers over the bark of the trees, feeling their different textures. When I try to hold her hand as she tackles a steep hill, she pushes it away. No, Mama, I hear her thinking, I do it myself. I get that. This is a place to be free.

The memories here, even though it’s been so long, swirl all around me. We sit on my aunt and uncle’s porch, and I can see the clubhouse my cousins and I built out of salvaged siding and plywood. The nextdoor neighbor is a girl — of course, she’s a grown woman now — with whom I used to play sometimes; one summer, we built a boat and carried it over our heads down to the creek. It was tippy and leaked like a sieve, but we laughed the whole time. W and I go for a walk, and pass the spot where I once tripped and fell, skinning my upper lip so that I spent the rest of the summer wearing scabs like a mustache. I punctuate our walk with intermittent observations and explanations. This is the house where the mean dogs used to live, I tell her as we go by; they chased me every day. This is “Poison Ivy Lane”; it’s a shortcut to the creek, but you have to be really careful picking your way through. This is the place I caught my first fish. The woman who used to live in this house was an amazing cook, and always used to invite me in and feed me. I don’t know how much of what I say she understands, but underneath the stories is simply this: I was once a little girl, W, just like you. Where we live now isn’t where I lived when I was little — it’s not even in the same town — but this place was a big part of my childhood. Maybe the biggest part. And I am sharing it with you.

Getting W undressed for her bath the last night of our visit, I notice the dirt on her toes and the scrapes on her legs. She’s only just come in from outdoors, and her hair is still warm from the setting sun. She smells like water and dust, grass and little kid sweat. I breathe in deeply, filling my nostrils and filling my heart. Last summer, W was a baby in my arms; this is the first true summer of childhood — the first of many — full of skinned knees and dirty feet, of fun to be had and memories to be made. I’m grateful I have this place to share with her, this place where the anthem of her childhood will ring loudly in her ears, and her pigtails will stream behind her as she runs free.

 

What of the summers of your youth will you share with your child?

 

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Melly
    Jun 14, 2012 @ 09:22:43

    My son is 20 months old and is enamoured with our backyard. He brings us his rubber boots and demands “ut” (out). Once he gets in the backyard, he actually does very little. He just walks around and around, picking up a rock or two, touching trees; but he can do this contentedly for almost an hour.
    I love watching him explore his yard. I want him to have an old-fashioned, simple childhood full of bugs, dirt and fresh air.

    Reply

    • SquintMom
      Jun 14, 2012 @ 23:11:31

      Awesome! Your story really resonates with me; I often think that W isn’t doing much, and I have to actively remind myself that everything is so new to her (and she’s so busy taking it all in and learning) that she’s way more stimulated than I would be by the same environment/activities. Still, I sometimes have to stop myself from encouraging her to “do something” during these times, and to just let her set the pace.

      Reply

  2. Ariane
    Jun 18, 2012 @ 16:59:18

    Oh wow! Too many memories 🙂 I’m a little embarrassed about the swords and potions lol. Do you remember how wretched the potions smelled?

    Reply

  3. Mary Ann
    Jun 23, 2012 @ 08:12:52

    Very well written. I love how you took us on all of your journeys through life at the cabin. Visiting you from WOE today. It’s nice to meet you!

    Reply

    • SquintMom
      Jun 25, 2012 @ 10:20:31

      Thank you! I’m glad you came by from WOE; I’ve recently discovered that site and think it’s a great resource for helping us all find each other!

      Reply

  4. Dale
    Jul 06, 2012 @ 17:08:21

    I love this one! Beautiful! When Sierra was between 12 months and 24 months, I really doubted how much she “understood.” Now I have no doubt– all those stories you tell them, about the life you had as a girl, they hear them and save them. It really is incredible!

    Reply

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